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With roughing-the-passer calls, NFL is guilty of piling on already disadvantaged defenders

Clay Matthews has been called for roughing the passer three times this season. alex brandon/AP

Here’s an NFL riddle: What has two legs, two arms, the football, and can’t be hit high, can’t be hit low, or tackled in the torso with enough force that someone lands on top of them? According to the NFL, it’s a quarterback. Taking down the quarterback without incurring a penalty has become a puzzling proposition for pass rushers in 2018.

Quarterbacks are the most valuable commodity in the NFL, and the league wants to keep its marquee men on the field and out of harm’s way. Understandable. It’s good business, even if it’s distasteful to prioritize the well-being of certain players over others. But the league has gone too far in preserving quarterbacks. There are endangered species with less protection than quarterbacks.


If you want to make sure quarterbacks don’t get hurt, swaddle them in bubble wrap. But don’t basically make bringing them down with any noticeable force a penalty; it’s a perversion of the integrity and spirit of the sport.

The NFL is guilty of piling on already disadvantaged defenders with its latest interpretation of the roughing-the-passer penalty, a point of emphasis for this season that highlighted a pre-existing rule about defenders landing on top of quarterbacks with all or most of their weight.

In its zeal to protect passers, the NFL is exposing defenders to needless penalties and, at least in one case, injury. It’s also violating a cardinal sin of sports: Officials should be inconspicuous in the outcome of games. Instead, the volume of roughing-the-passer penalties this season has been conspicuous.

Roughing-the-passer penalties have more than doubled through three weeks, with 34 (not all for body-weight infractions) called this season, compared with 16 through three weeks last season, according to the NFL. (There were 20 called through three weeks in 2016). There were 105 roughing-the-passer penalties called during the entire 2017 season, according to Pro Football Reference.com. Green Bay’s Clay Matthews has been flagged for the penalty all three weeks this season.


The spike in flags coincided with the league adopting a point of emphasis to enforce an existing roughing-the-passer provision. It prohibits defensive players from “unnecessarily” — a key word — throwing a quarterback down or landing “on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.” The rule states, “Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.”

NFL players are unnaturally gifted athletes. Tackling one is not easy. A certain amount of force and leverage is necessary to ensure a successful tackle. Physics also dictates that for defenders to stop midstream in a millisecond and prevent their body weight from landing on a quarterback after they wrap and drive, as they’re taught, they would need to be Neo from the “Matrix” movies.

The issue is the too literal interpretation and impractical implementation of the roughing rule, giving defenders a helmeted Hobson’s choice: let the quarterback go and watch him complete a pass or finish the play and risk a penalty and a hit to their wallet. Common sense isn’t in the NFL rulebook. It’s up to humans to provide it.

You know the rule is rankling the rank and file when the people it’s designed to protect are criticizing how it’s being adjudicated. A chorus of current and former NFL quarterbacks has decried the enforcement of the rule. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, and Aaron Rodgers have expressed sympathy for the bind that the point of emphasis has put pass rushers. Former Cowboys quarterback and current Fox analyst Troy Aikman expressed irritation with the interpretation of the rule Sunday.


On Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that had four roughing-the-passer penalties. Roethlisberger said the first one, called on Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy, surprised him. He also said, “There are sure a lot of them. I can’t imagine the fans at home are enjoying it too much.”

Rodgers was in part the impetus for the point of emphasis. He suffered a broken collarbone last year after being driven to the ground by Minnesota’s Anthony Barr. If anyone should be an advocate of the current enforcement, it should be A-Rod. Nope. But he took issue with penalties called on Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks and on his teammate, Matthews, in a Week 2 contest between the Packers and Vikings, stating, “Those to me aren’t penalties.”

The call on Matthews was particularly egregious in that it looked benign and altered the outcome of the game by negating an apparent game-sealing interception for Green Bay. Instead, the game ended in a tie.

How did the league respond? Officiating czar Alberto Riveron doubled down on the questionable call and said the NFL was going to send it out as an example of what not to do as a defender. This is the type of reality distortion field we usually see in Foxborough.


Discontent, confusion, and controversy have been themes during Riveron’s tenure, whether it’s with replay review, the lowering-the-helmet rule in the preseason, or the inflexible application of the roughing-the-passer rule.

Riveron, who became senior vice president of officiating in 2017, has a very difficult job. He inherited it at a time when scrutiny demands that the league err on the side of safety. No one doubts Riveron’s résumé, but there is a level of guidance and practical interpretation required from the head of officiating to be imparted to the on-field officials that seems to be lacking. Instead, there is a zero-tolerance attitude that does more harm than good.

There is a note in the rulebook advising officials: “When in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the Referee should always call roughing the passer.”

With the uproar over enforcement, the league’s competition committee convened via conference call Wednesday night to clarify the rule and ensure consistency. No changes in the point of emphasis were deemed necessary, and the league put out a new officiating video Thursday clarifying what represents a foul. However, an unspoken tweak to the way roughing the passer is officiated could happen, a la lowering the helmet, especially if owners are agitated by it. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expressed dismay earlier this week over roughing the passer enforcement.


The counter to the complaints will be the constant peal of the bell being sounded for player safety, which is important. Yet, besides asking 200-plus-pound defenders to defy gravity and Newton’s Second Law of Motion, the league is potentially endangering them.

Miami defensive end William Hayes tore his ACL on Sunday in the undefeated Dolphins victory over the Oakland Raiders. Hayes got hurt trying to contort his body to avoid putting body weight on Raiders QB Derek Carr.

What makes the game safer for some players makes it less safe for others.

Quarterbacks going to the ground with force is unavoidable. The proliferation of flags following them is avoidable.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.